From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

A Reason for Living

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.

Ecclesiastes 3:1

“What do you think of suicide?” asked the frail feminine voice on the other end of the line.

I didn’t expect a suicide call at 8:59 in the morning, one minute before the Helpline Office opened. Usually suicide calls startled me from a sound sleep after midnight. My caller probably anticipated getting through to the office staff instead of a volunteer who was finishing a shift at home.

During our crisis training, I learned to listen, rather than respond with something flippant like, “I’m against it.” I simply waited. The caller continued. As she talked, I checked the proper boxes on her profile sheet.

“I live in a nursing home in a nearby city,” she said. “ I’m seventy-six and . . . and I’m dying.” Her fragile voice faded away as she struggled to catch her next breath. “I have cancer and emphysema. There’s no hope that I’ll recover. I don’t want to burden my family any longer. I just want to die,” she said as she burst into tears.

Although I’d answered the Helpline phones for several years, suicide calls still scared me. Life is precious. I was sure that there was no instance where I could condone suicide as a solution.

“Have you talked to anyone at the nursing home about this?” I inquired.

The caller responded, “When I mentioned suicide to one of the nurses here, she got scared and called my doctor, my family and my minister. Everybody rushed in but nobody . . . listened. So I phoned you.” Once again, her weak voice trailed off for a few moments.

“I’m listening,” I said softly.

“My husband’s been gone for nine years now. When I tell them how much I miss him, they say they understand.” She continued, “But they can’t understand. When I speak of the pain, they promise to up my dose of medication. The medicine only makes me feel groggy.” Stopping to cough, she resumed hesitantly, “I told them I’m ready to go home to God. They said suicide was a sin, so I promised I wouldn’t think of killing myself again, but I do . . . all the time. I have no reason for living any longer.”

Confused and searching for the right thing to say, I asked myself, What can I say to this sweet lady that will help her? Before, I never doubted for a second that suicide was wrong. However, I was disturbed to find myself sympathizing with her reasoning. Certainly the quality of her life would not improve.

I remembered a young man who had called one New Year’s Eve—gun in hand. After we talked throughout that lonely night, he said he finally felt a ray of hope. What hope can I offer this distressed caller? I wondered.

I decided to stall for time. “Tell me about your family.”

She talked lovingly of her children and grandchildren. They came to visit her often at the nursing home. She loved to see them but felt guilty for taking them away from their own families and activities.

Andrew, her rebellious middle child, had gotten especially close to her during her illness. When he first heard she was dying, he apologized for the times he’d been thoughtless during his young adult years.

As she talked, my mind raced. I thought back to when I was visiting my Grandma Florence in the hospital every day. One evening, just after returning home, I received a call. Grandma Florence had taken a turn for the worse, and they wanted me to come back immediately. As I sat by her bedside, silent tears spilled from my eyes. The nurse tried to console me by saying, “She’s ready to die.”

Angrily, I retorted, “But I’m not ready to let her die!” Grandma Florence died six weeks later. By then, I was ready to let her go. I was glad God had given me a little more time.

Maybe someone in my caller’s life needs more time, I thought. I told her of my experience and said, “Perhaps God is giving someone in your family more time.”

She was silent for a few moments before she mentioned Andrew again. “I’m glad I didn’t die six months ago, although I’d considered suicide even then.”

During our conversation, I learned that during the months after her diagnosis of cancer, Andrew, a skilled woodworker, made her a beautiful casket. Although she never doubted his love, he needed those months to show her just how much he cared about her. But now the casket was finished, and he had time to reconcile.

“Maybe God is allowing you to suffer a little longer for someone else in the family,” I suggested.

“Yes, of course . . . it must be Sarah,” she answered sadly.

I didn’t remember her mentioning a Sarah. “Who is Sarah?” I inquired.

“Sarah is my granddaughter. She just gave birth to a stillborn baby. I’m so worried about her. Her loss seems overwhelming. Perhaps God knows that Sarah couldn’t deal with another death right now.”

As she talked, this sweet lady’s voice grew a little stronger. From my training, I learned this is sometimes an indication that a person is beginning to see a ray of hope. My caller’s hope came not from the prospect of her own life improving, but from her perception that God had a purpose for her life. He needed her help on Earth just a little longer.

Ellen Javernick

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